by Anne Loch
The gentleman insisted on waiting in the hall across from Jonah's office.
Mr. White would not be in for another hour, the secretary tried to explain, but the man would not leave, and made his stand in the hall. He paced in front of the office door, not unlike a dog who had been turned out for the night. Jonah White was still at home, nearly out the door, when he received the call asking if he was expecting a man who claimed to be with a risk management firm. Jonah heaved a long sigh at hearing this and told his secretary not to call security, that yes he was expecting him, although, he thought as he hung up the phone, he had been hoping the man would not show.
Earlier that week Jonah received not one, not two, but three letters from the mailroom. All addressed to him personally. The first two had been held back for the usual inspections, delaying their arrival to Jonah by several days, evidently during which time, the sender had sent two more inquiries, each sounding more pleading than the last. The envelope of the third letter pleaded "URGENT-RESPONSE NEEDED" above Jonah's name.
The letters all contained a summary of a report from someone who claimed they were a mathematician working for an organization that reported "hypothetical risks".
Jonah's company had a similar department, however, it had nothing to do with math and was most certainly not hypothetical. His risk department assured that every product was thoroughly tested and retested several times before it was approved. They performed everything from intentionally overloading a system's processor to check for overheating, to bodily throwing a device against a wall to rate its durability. Jonah found it hard to believe there was anything they were not already doing to guarantee the safety of every piece of technology they manufactured. Yet these messages seemed to indicate otherwise.
The letters arrived just a few weeks after they'd announced the release of a new product: a revolutionary device that would set the bar for telecommunications once and for all. Not only would this device offer the same calling capabilities of traditional communicators, but they would also be equipped with ocular cameras creating a global augmented reality. Anyone could be anywhere, and everyone everywhere.
Each letter had asked, practically begged Jonah to hold the release of the new phone until the sender could at least meet with Jonah, and explain why the risks of this product were "far beyond simple physical defects", and that the long term consequences could be "catastrophic".
Sensing a wild goose chase, but not wanting to expose the company to liability should a danger exist, Jonah finally called the number. The voice on the other end simply said he'd be there the following day, and the line disconnected before Jonah could even check his appointment book.
The firm the man claimed to work for did vouch for him, although Jonah found it a bit suspicious they refused to discuss the matter of the letters. The representative would only confirm the man's employment, and then curtly ended the conversation.
Jonah could have laughed if it weren't so irritating. Objectively, it should have been funny. He was being pulled into a conspiracy by some cloak and dagger fanatic. He did not say this aloud, however, as he walked down the hall, ignoring the inquisitive and concerned looks from his secretary. He simply extended his hand to the gentleman and invited him into his office.
Despite it being early, he offered his strange guest a drink.
The man looked frazzled. His hair was a tussle, his eyes slightly bloodshot and his clothes looked wrinkled and dirty as if slept in. His buttons were fastened off-center. He wore no tie.
Jonah sat behind his desk and waved his hand to indicate the other chair to his guest. The man glanced for a moment between the tumbler glass of whiskey that had been thrust into his open palm and the offered seat. He did not appear to recognize the gesture at first, but at last, there was an expression of understanding, and he sat, gulped down the entire beverage, and then offered Jonah a thick manila envelope.
Jonah took the envelope but did not open it. He appraised the man, feigning what he hoped was an intimidating look. He did not want to be jerked around.
"Mr. Cassan? Was it?"
The man called Cassan nodded. He looked as though he were waiting for Jonah to ask him to speak.
Jonah kept him waiting. He fiddled with the corner of the envelope. "You know, Mr. Cassan, we kept the information about this project hidden until our announcement. We purposely waited until the last minute when it was ready to hit the shelves. We're launching next Monday, yet during the few weeks that the basic specs were made public you've had time to analyze it and deem it unsafe?"
Cassan finally spoke. His voice was a bit hoarse. "Yes, I have. It's my job to assess possible threats. It requires a fast turn around time. This... new idea of yours, of your company's I mean, I-"
Jonah interrupted, "My company did not hire your firm, Mr. Cassan." he spoke firmly, using the voice his father might have used to scold him as a boy. "This leaves me to wonder how you could possibly have come to possess enough information to make any sort of assessment on our product." Was there a leak in the company? Paranoia coursed through Jonah's mind. Perhaps he needed security after all.
Cassan did not seem bothered by the implications.
"I wasn't hired to steal your design. I've never even seen what it looks like, apart from the pictures in the ad," he said. "I did this on my own time." He took the envelope back from Jonah and opened it, pulling out some sort of report. It was dozens of pages long, if not close to a hundred.
"I came here against the wishes of my peers, but I believe what I'm doing is right. It's necessary. For your sake- for everyone's sake..." Cassan seemed to be saying this to himself.
Jonah held the enormous report. "You're telling me that you composed this based solely on the product description?"
Cassan nodded again, unphased. "Something like this... it's revolutionary, as you say in your ads. It's never been seen before on the face of the earth. It... it caught my attention."
"You said you were some kind of mathematician?" Jonah asked.
"Statistician." Cassan corrected him. "I don't teach fourth graders how to perform long division, I work with probabilities based on complex algorithms rooted in human behavior."
"Some sort of 'risk management', you said?" Jonah said.
Cassan waved off the words like an irksome fly. "Yes, yes, but bigger. We aren't fending off worrisome mothers complaining about video games interfering with their child's homework. I am not here to preach to you about the effect of screen time on the developing brain-"
Jonah knew about that type of complaint. Luckily his company had a relations team for those phone calls. Whatever this Cassan fellow was talking about though, he did not understand.
"-my work goes further. So much further... If my calculations are correct and forgive my lack of modesty but they are usually correct, this will affect the entire nation... if not the world."
Cassan's speech became fast and seemed to express some of the urgency, if not panic, that had come across in his messages.
"What you have to understand... this product- this idea. It makes everyone accessible. All the time. Do you see? Constant accessibility. And not some cut and edited story played out on the news, this is all raw data, spewing straight from the source, a digital stream of human consciousness from every part of the world... one giant camera glaring constantly above the earth for anyone and everyone to use as their platform."
Cassan looked straight at Jonah, "I trust you've heard of the concept of data overload?" Jonah had not, but he nodded, and Cassan continued. "Many of my colleagues believe your product will contribute to an already climbing level of nationwide apathy, but ultimately will do no more harm than the invention of television. But I believe it will.
Do you know what a person does when they hear a devastating story happening halfway across the world? A natural disaster or a political genocide?"
To this, Jonah did have an answer, "They do nothing." he said.
"Precisely!" Cassan said, "They do nothing. Because it's too much! It's too much sorrow to process. There is a negative correlation between larger traumatic events and empathy. At some point, the human brain just taps out. Our emotions cannot rise to the necessary threshold. My peers believe your product will have a similar effect- the more connections we have the less connected we are, and so forth.
Yet, we are pack creatures, and we will raise hell when one of our friends or neighbors is struggling, won't we? It's different when we see it firsthand, right? It is those smaller, individual connections that have a greater effect. And so we come to your product.
What your device does is not connect us on a mass scale, like print, or pictures, or even film. What this does is create many smaller, individual connections. Don't you see? It's not like watching someone far away on television. You can now see through this person's eyes in the most literal sense possible...
Now, I ask you, what will that sort of connection do for a nation founded on principles it never followed? Whose very concept is a lie, and whose very people lie to themselves?"
Jonah cocked an eyebrow. "What do you mean lie?"
Cassan actually laughed at this. "An idealist then? I'm surprised, they're so rare in the business world... Very well. Do you honestly believe that we're living in the Golden Age of Peace, as all our leaders claim we are?"
Jonah replied, "There can never truly be an age of peace, humans are imperfect creatures. There will always be poor and hungry to feed, there will always be violence to quell, and there will always be corruption to dismantle."
"Yes," Cassan said, "But why does our nation sit by idly and do nothing of the injustices that exist in our own backyards?"
"What are you talking about?" Jonah asked.
"I'm talking about our poverty, Mr. White, I'm talking about our violence, our corruption. A majority of the population truly believes our nation is living in providence. What do you think will happen when the truth is revealed?"
"And what is the truth?" Jonah asked carefully.
"That we are not in an age of peace. That we are not an example to be paraded to the rest of the world. That we are in fact broken, and always have been. Divided. Our liberty is not our freedom, but our prison. We are as false as a mask. And what's worse, we prefer the mask. But what happens when the mask comes off? The idea that technology is our greatest enemy, the hubris of our species, is often played out in fiction, like a modern Oedipus Rex. Technology is always shown to be our demise. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I've always felt that technology would be our salvation. Mr. White, I believe your product will be our salvation."
At this Jonah threw his hands up in the air. "Then where is the danger? Have you come all this way to tell me that our device is a great idea? I could have told you as much."
Cassan raised his voice nearly to a shout. "We aren't ready for it! Constant access to human connection and truth will rip our culture of lies apart! Shred the very fabric of our nation! It will tear down borders and expose all the neglected parts, shine light in dark corners, allow the invisible to be seen!
Technology lives a lifetime in the blink of an eye, but these flesh and blood bodies do not. We are slow to adapt, we are stubborn against change, and more to the point- we are stupid. Society needs to change, I agree to that much. We need to be exposed to the dirty truth, but not this quickly- not this casually.
What your product will do will lift the wool off everyone's eyes and at the same time cause an enormous spike in empathy. Historically, when that happens, it has always- always- led to nothing short of mass rebellion.
In our salvation, there will be casualties, of course. You can't restore a building without stripping the wallpaper. But this will be the equivalent of breaking down the walls without even waiting for the movers to finish packing! There will be panic, confusion, and then after the initial shock dies down... chaos. I'm begging you, Mr. White, do not release this device, please read the report... read the-"
But Jonah had already pressed the alarm under his desk. Security guards were now walking into the office. Mr. Cassan continued to shout as they physically dragged him out, but they ignored him.
Jonah White briefly lingered at the door to assure affronted witnesses that everything was under control before stepping back into his office and closing the door.
What a character. Jonah thought as he settled back into his chair, breathing a sigh of relief. At least that's over.
He pulled a prototype of the device out of the top drawer of his desk, running his fingertip along the smooth glass interface. Really, he thought, how could a little thing cause so much trouble?